My week in the Craftlands

My week in the Craftlands

I got home from my weeklong, double-header trip Tuesday night, planning to write a bit about it for yesterday’s post. But in addition to being exhausted and wanting to hang out with my husband, my mind was just too full from the trip. I needed a minute.

I wrote a very short Craftlands post about Knitting With Company back in June, when I was first invited to be a featured guest at their October event in Minnesota. It overlapped with the Nordic Knitting Conference in Seattle — an every-other-year occurrence that I had planned on attending since missing the 2014 event — and I decided to do both, because I’m a crazy person. But sometimes crazy pays off, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss either of these events — especially because both wound up feeding my Slow Fashion October brain in various ways.

Knitting With Company is ostensibly just an opportunity to hang out in a lodge setting and knit with some well-known designers — and a bunch of other wonderful knitters — for a few days. While there are no classes, though, there are talks by each of the four headliners (for lack of a better word), which are always Julie Hoover and Catherine Lowe plus two special guests. At this one, that was me and Norah Gaughan, who is as delightful as can be. I absolutely loved hearing Julie, Catherine and Norah’s talks. Each discussed their path as a designer, showed examples of their work and talked about their motivation and their process — each of them so different as designers and presenters, but so exceptional when it comes to the thoughtfulness and knowledge and experience they pour into their patterns. For my part, this being October, I wanted to find a way to talk about slow fashion and Slotober without it being a “lecture” in any sense. So I decided to show slides of 12 garments from my wardrobe (knitted, sewn and mended) and talk about the lessons I’ve learned from them — skills, sentimental value, longevity — that variously highlighted slow fashion principles while also, hopefully, maybe, giving everyone something to think about with regard to choosing projects and yarns well. (Mostly a learning-from-my-mistakes scenario!) So for me, those few days were casual and relaxing yet thought-provoking and inspiring.

And of course, I like knitters and enjoy being surrounded by them — and especially enjoy being a curiosity to the other guests in an establishment. I witnessed one of my favorite knitterly moments ever, too. A woman named Tammi, who I was instantly fond of, had just finished Julie’s Ludlow scarf  pattern and wanted to know if Julie would be in a photo with her and her scarf. Julie hates being in pictures but is one of the best photographers around, and so she offered to take Tammi’s FO photos down by the water. Not only was it amazing — the very idea of the photgraphically gifted designer shooting a knitter’s FO photos — but Tammi owned that little impromptu photo shoot like nothing I’ve ever seen. She was striking poses and smiling radiantly and my heart fell out in a puddle as I watched from the balcony. And yes, Julie also submitted to the joint selfie. Everyone was just lovely, and if any of the attendees are reading this: I loved meeting you.

My week in the Craftlands

Nordic Knitting Conference was the opposite of Knitting With Company. Held at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, it’s a tightly packed schedule of classes and lectures, and I definitely nerded out on how focused and academic it was. Arriving late, I only got to take three classes: one on the Skolt Sami* people and their unique style of colorwork; one on a specific Sami woman named Skaite-Maria who was something of a minimalist going her own way; and a looser survey of Nordic styles and traditions and their influences. I ate up every minute of it and can’t wait to go again in 2018.

My week in the Craftlands

But here’s the thing — between the two events, I found myself in the midst of multiple tangential conversations about how, historically, much of one’s wealth was tied up (no pun intended) in the textiles one owned. Think of pirates stealing people’s chests of cloth and clothing, or of the traditions of trousseaus and hope chests. We talk a lot about how many fewer items of clothing people used to have in their closets (in, say, the first half of the 20th century), but long before that people spun and wove and tatted and knitted and crocheted. Farm folk pored over their lace borders and collars, tucking the finest of them away for their future lives, and rich people invested in brocades and tapestries and bespoke clothing. What we take for granted and amass thoughtlessly and toss off without a care, our ancestors placed incredible value on.

In the Nordic survey class, the teacher, Susan Strawn, talked a lot about museum collections — how they are built and cataloged and viewed. She mentioned that what gets donated tend to be special occasion clothes, worn once and not all that descriptive — wedding gowns, christening garments. What academics and researchers and curators long for are the everyday clothes that were worn and darned and have stories to tell. (I could talk about that green child’s sweater up there for hours.) Isn’t that what we keep saying in #slowfashionoctober? What I’ve learned from my clothes these past few years — what I was driving at in my talk and have written about so often — is I want every article of clothing in my closet to have a story to tell.

I also got to thinking, over the course of those three classes, about mending — and the fact that people not only made their clothes, historically, but that they were conceived with wear and mending in mind. The Sami mittens are one great example among many: The teacher of my two Sami classes, Laura Ricketts, was talking about the braided cord that hangs from each Sami mitten, which is used to secure them (to your waistband, your reindeer, whatever!) when you need to take them off for any reason. When she first began knitting replicas of mittens she’d seen in museums, for teaching purposes, she thought it would be clever to use her cast-on tail for the braid, to save time and yarn. No no, the locals told her — it’s attached separately, because if the braid gets damaged or worn, you want to be able to replace it without compromising the mitten itself.

There was an older Norwegian woman in the Nordic traditions class — a museum volunteer, who was dynamic and saucy and had the most awesome voice and accent. She was a child in Nazi-occupied Norway and had heart-wrenching stories to tell about life during the war, including the ways people had of removing the lower part of a sleeve to re-knit it when the cuffs wore bare, sewing clothes for the children from the worn or outgrown garments of the grown-ups, her father’s suit that was “so shiny and so thin” from wear. We, the general public, do not know how to darn our socks or elbows, or re-knit our cuffs. Store-bought clothes rarely even come with extra buttons stitched inconspicuously to the front placket or side seam anymore, because who ever replaces them? A shirt with a lost or broken button is one for the donation bin — where, ironically, the lost or broken button will likely get it sorted into the landfill pile rather than resold in the charity shop.

I feel this more intensely all the time: It’s not just knitting, what we’re doing. Not just sewing. Not just mending. It runs so much deeper than that.

Also: I got a lot of knitting done. ;)

My week in the Craftlands

*You may know the Sami as Laplanders, but that’s apparently considered a pejorative term. The things you learn!

PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: Cordova, Alaska

46 thoughts on “My week in the Craftlands

  1. I come from a large family (8 children) and my Mother sewed and mended all the time (along with a full-time outside the house job). As a child, I remember wondering why we couldn’t just buy something new when clothes go holes.
    It is so rare to see a patched article of clothing these days. As we all become more enlightened about the waste of fabric put into landfills or shipped to foreign countries, I hope people begin to make wiser choices in garment purchases, for mending or alterations can make what would have been tossed into something wearable or possibly new again.
    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Did you happen to tkae photos o fthe Back/inside of the Nordic knit pieces? I would love to see what that looks like when done by a pro!

      • I am totally intimidated by the work in the Nordic pieces (I am also intimidated by cosmetics counters!!!)….I think the back of my pieces would be a jumbled up mess! I did a childs sweater once with a tractor pictured on it and it was “OK”. He wore it and loved it so it was a success in that way. Really had no idea what I was doing with yarn color changes. I have to admit that YouTube has opened up many knitting possibilities for me (thanks to those who post tutorials) but I have yet to tackle anything like these gorgeous works that you have pictured here. Would love to see the inside of these beautiful works. Maybe I simply need to explore and find some tutorials.

        • Yep, Dianna I do mean that but in the case of mittens I didn’t know what to say besides “inside”!!! Thanks for helping me out!

          • I assumed that you were asking about the wrong side of the fabric but wasn’t sure what exactly you were curious about — how they weave in ends or whether they trapped their floats or what. You should give colorwork a try — it does take some practice but it’s easier than it looks!

  3. Wow, Karen, this may be my favorite of all your articles. Your thoughtful writing is changing the way I think about my clothes. Thank you.

  4. I really enjoyed this article. Among other things, it brought back memories of my grandmother taking my family to task for having 14 coats in the closet (whoever needs 14 coats?). These were coats for a family of 5 in Oregon who all skied, dressed for church on Sunday and walked to school in all weather. And my other grandmother who talked about having a peg at the back door to hang the dirty work clothes on when you changed into your other set. No closet needed.

  5. Fascinating post. Wish I could have gone along. It just occurred to me that I’ve been “turning” the collars of my husband’s beloved denim and flannel shirts for years. It’s very easy to do, just pick out the neckband stitches or collar stitches if there’s no band, turn it around, and reattach. Granted the neck button and buttonhole are reversed but he never uses them. I remember Grandma whipstitching the buttonhole closed, sewing the button over it, and making a new, hand-bound buttonhole on the other side. I wish I’d watched more closely how she did that, but at least I remembered the turning part. Your posts about where donated clothes go has made me rethink my wardrobe and gotten me back to the sewing machine. Thanks!

  6. A few years ago a friend of mine asked me about something I was wearing, commenting that “lots of your clothes have stories,” and wondering if this one did too. Of course it did! The whole thing highlighted the fact that I have a different relationship with my clothing than most people I know, but also that the stories are interesting, and my friend (who is male and not interested in “fashion” most of the time) actually wanted to hear them. One thing I love about Slotober is hearing others’ stories of their journeys, their treasured long-worn items. Here’s hoping that all of us can begin to rediscover a lasting, personal connection to the textiles around us … without the need that drove many of our ancestors to care so much.

  7. Wealth & textiles … What about the idea of inheriting clothes? We often discuss a sweater or a shawl or baptismal gown that has been passed along the generations, but I feel like, speaking in the context of “well worn” we often forget the every day clothes people used to inherit from each other as well. The overalls. The undershirts. The hiking socks. “Cleaning out granny’s closet after the funeral” has become synonymous with throwing out & sending to goodwill, but what if we actually saved or repurposed those items? When my father died, my husband got his suit jackets (eventually tailored to fit him & the 21st century better), my brother took his sport clothes, I still have all of his ties. There were men’s large sweatpants out of heavy cotton fleece that fit 4 members of the family (of various genders & ages, none of whom would have believed it), all of whom took home a pair . None of this is heirloom or handmade or frankly – “special”. But they were well made clothes whose owner wore out before they did & beyond being a comfort in grief, they didn’t belong in a landfill. There is so much tied up in this – family ghosts & changing fashions & grief, but I often wonder at the opportunity missed by throwing out those normal, average, un-special clothes.

  8. I love your idea of the 12 items from your wardrobe. This is the approach I’m taking for my Long Worn post for Slotober. And the stories each item tells are the best part. It’s been great trawling through old photos and the associated memories.

  9. Karen, have you spent any time with Annemor Sundbø yet? I can’t remember! If not, you should absolutely check out her books (Everdyay Knitting is a great place to start, but they are all fantastic):
    It totally tickles me to see the old Norwegian classroom with the vowel diagrams pop up on your blog! I’m so thrilled that you and so many other folks made it to the conference this year. <3

      • She was the headliner four years ago, and I totally fell in love after taking a class with her and hearing her keynote lecture. The impact it made on my life is huge. Her work is amazing and she’s also just a delightful human!

  10. This was a wonderful post. I’m now super curious about Saami patterns and also that one designer you mention in particular.

    I first started traveling regularly to places where handmade was the rule, rather than the exception, in 2001. Over the course of those 15 years, cheap readymade has become the norm almost everywhere and people only rarely make things by hand anymore. One consequence of this is that some traditional clothes which were once considered basic, rather than formal wear for special occasions, have almost disappeared. I’m thinking in particular of these beautiful, very spare, white goat-skin robes that Tibetan men wear in one area where I work. The robes are complicated to make and so heavy that invariably the seams fail at least once a year, requiring mending by a skilled tailor (both men and women sew). The robes are considered beautiful (handsome?) and incredibly useful, but their manufacture and upkeep is such a hassle so even as people lament their disappearance, they’d still rather buy a ready made down jacket and sweater, even if these things have to be replaced every couple of years.

  11. Ooooh, so much to think about here! The Nordic Knitting Conference sounds incredible. Kate Davies has written a lot about the everyday clothes of women in centuries past and in weird way it feels revolutionary to think of our everyday clothes as just as special and meaningful and worthy of care as our most special garments. If nothing else, all this thinking about Slow Fashion is bringing that home to me more and more and, in a way, giving me permission to focus on “boring” clothes because they too are so worthy of care.

  12. I am surprised that within the context of mending and of slow fashion Tom of Holland has not been mentioned. His ideas about mending, darning and and creating your own clothing in the most thoughtful way possible are challenging and creative. I’ve actually been waiting for something to need mending, just so i can explore a little more.

  13. As always, this post was an informative read with some wonderful photography and great stories. However, I have been wondering about something relevant to this blog for some time. For all the focus on sustainability, intention, and “mending” and historical ways of treating clothes due to limited money, time, and materials, there seems to be a huge disjunction. How do you square these themes with the exorbitant cost of attending Knitting With Company, which is close to or, more likely, upwards of $1,000 including transportation? How does the expense of Company (or a Dries van Noten piece, even when bought on consignment) fit with Slotober, with your general ideals for ethics and intention and value, and the human ancestors you implicitly lionize who made clothes because they had to? No offense, but in large part, it seems to me like it doesn’t. Today’s equivalent of the people in the generations you venerate (bygone days of farm folk and whomever who had to make and mend clothes due to limited time, money, material, and other resources) can’t afford to attend something like Company or buy even a secondhand van Noten skirt. So calling attention to these realities through Company or van Noten seems a bit tone deaf at best, and offensive and not honoring of the reality of lack at worst. is For me, ethics and aesthetics are not separate at all, so the attractiveness of Company, van Noten, fashion, Knitting retreats (and this blog, and Slotober as a movement, etc.) is affected.

    I’m asking not as an outside critic, but as a crafter and person who struggles with these questions given similar commitments (to memory of folk through craft, to fashion, art, and economy) in her life.

    • I don’t make any assumptions about the income levels of the people who read this blog or are participating in the Slotober conversation. I believe some are quite well off and know that others are on extremely limited budgets. Me, I’m a small business owner with a husband on social security, so my means are obviously limited. But I certainly don’t feel that only low-income people can be authentic in their pursuit of Slow Fashion or Slow Food or environmental principles in general.

      Knitting With Company and other such retreats are a chance for people to dig in on being a maker — advancing their skills, communing with other makers, discussing relevant concerns. I don’t think the fact that not everyone can afford to attend negates the value of those events for those who can.

      And the whole point of Ann’s piece about collecting Dries Van Noten is that she cherishes them. She spends time pursuing them, wears them, maintains them, keeps them from winding up in a charity’s landfill pile. Again, just because I can’t afford those pieces doesn’t in any way mean what she’s doing isn’t Slow Fashion in the truest sense. It is. My version is different, but no more or less authentic than hers.

      As I’m always saying, we should each do what is possible and desirable for us, and that will be different from one person to the next. I would never say that people shouldn’t do things I can’t do, just because I can’t, or vice versa.

    • Jana11, I realize your comment may have been directed at Karen but hope you don’t mind an additional response from another commenter. I’m very interested in the money/economics side of all this as well, but I disagree that there is anything tone deaf or offensive in the choice of subjects. The community discussion (on instagram) this month includes people with a big range of incomes and budgetary constraints–working people, craftspeople piecing together an income with multiple gigs, parents of small children, students, and, yes, wealthier people too. I’ve been fascinated by expressions of frugality of every sort, from people frogging their own previous knitting work in order to be able to afford to knit sweaters that will suit them more now, to a woman who makes onesies from thrift-store T-shirts, to a woman who said she has NEVER purchased a new item of clothing. I’ll never follow any of these specific practices, nor will I ever buy a used item of couture or travel to a knitting conference–those aren’t my priorities or desires when it comes to my clothes, money and time. But all these specific actions do illuminate and inform my values, aspirations and choices when it comes to handmade clothing and ethical consumption, and I’m very grateful for people having shared them. I guess what I’m saying is that all of these aforementioned examples “fit” or “square” with the idea of Slow Fashion October perfectly well to me, since it’s meant to encompass all the different ways we can and do try to come closer to an ideal of a more sustainable world–slowly, imperfectly, contingent on our needs and resources, and hopefully with some joy.

      • Thanks for your replies, both of you (Karen and Genevieve). They are helpful in moving the conversation forward for me and helping me better understand the convo and community that has been taking place around this blog/Slotober. They are also super thought-provoking about value. Value is, I believe, intensely personal but also of necessity communal, especially when we’re thinking in the vein of sustainability. So what someone else is doing, or can or cannot do, does inform what I do. It needn’t dictate it–your reply was helpful in demonstrating that, Genevieve–but it does (or in my mind, should) inform it. And perhaps how it is informed, or not, is a key to the ethical component.

        I’m still mulling over these concerns and probably will for sometime.

  14. This post was very interesting. It was fun to read about the sami designs as they have been a part of my life as long as I can remember because my grandmother was part sami. I didn’t even know why there were those braided cords in the sami mittens allthough I have owned quite a few pairs of them made by my grandmother. I always thought they were just decorative and it never occured to me to ask about them. My grandmother has now passed and when I had my son I was excited to get my hands on a pair of knitted sami style baby socks that she made for my cousins child (who didn’t use them anymore). I definitely need to start finding out more about my own heritage regarding everything handmade..:)

    • Thanks for your replies, both of you (Karen and Genevieve). They are helpful in moving the conversation forward for me and helping me better understand the convo and community that has been taking place around this blog/Slotober. They are also super thought-provoking about value. Value is, I believe, intensely personal but also of necessity communal, especially when we’re thinking in the vein of sustainability. So what someone else is doing, or can or cannot do, does inform what I do. It needn’t dictate it–your reply was helpful in demonstrating that, Genevieve–but it does (or in my mind, should) inform it. And perhaps how it is informed, or not, is a key to the ethical component.

      I’m still mulling over these concerns and probably will for sometime.

  15. Great post, and I totally agree on regretting that we no longer know how to mend and repair our clothes. I am from the generation that was no longer taught sewing and cooking as practical skills in school, the way my mother was. Instead, we spent hours learning to make paper bags and cardboard boxes. Like it is an essential skill to get, for sure. I mean, I should be able to make my own paper bags before I go shopping for groceries, right? At the time, it was considered progress. Women no longer wanted to be associated with domestic and humble tasks. The result is that an entire generation has lost these valuable skills. It is heartening to see they are slowly coming back. Maybe we should advocate for the return of domestic classes in school, for girls and boys alike: learning to sew, cook, mend appliances and use tools to build things. That would be a revolution. There is power in making, which might be the reason why it has been systematically eradicated from the education system: consumers are easily manipulated, makers are more independent and self-reliant.

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  17. Finally had a chance to read this; there’s so much to your post as well as the conversations in the comments section. I know what you mean when you say “It runs deeper than that.” And as for your paragraph on how textiles were symbols of wealth, I immediately thought of this line from the song “The Weekend” by the Dave Rawlings Machine:
    “I had good fortune
    Silver silk and wool
    I gave them all away and now my heart is full…”

  18. Oh, what fun! I’ve heard Laura Ricketts talk on the Sami and knit the Red and the Black mitts (except in gray and black). I’m enjoying Slow Fashion October topics – much to think contemplate as I continue to eyeball my post-retirement wardrobe. One great thing about aging is the dropping of adherence to convention. Thank you!

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